Farm women survey finds lack of understanding in shopping moms

Apr 22, 2013

When it comes to picking what food goes on the tables of American families, moms hold the reins. So getting to know what motivates moms in the grocery isle is a valiant effort.

The grassroots organization CommonGround recently released the results of their “Gate-to-Plate” survey. The online survey looked at the buying motivations of over 1,000 moms of school-aged children at the grocery store. While the results show moms are focused on nutrition and safety of the food they select for their families, a good deal of their buying motivations were based on misinformation.

“As CommonGround volunteers, we are able to talk to people and report back on what they’re asking,” said Joan Ruskamp, mother of five and co-operator of a century-old family farm and a beef feedlot in Nebraska. “Surveys can help be an indicator on how people are thinking.”

Ruskamp explained the impetus to do the survey was to get a more randomized, theoretically representative idea of what consumers are thinking and what they are confused by rather than the limited samples of their first-hand experience.

The survey mainly focused on price impacting purchasing decisions and some perspectives about farmers. The survey asked questions about such things as organic food, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), other food labels, and perceptions of farmers, among other things. Selecting any or all of these specially-labeled products over conventionally-produced items can increase the expense of a shopping trip significantly, so choosing them based on misinformation is potentially wasting money.

Some of the key results of the survey are as follows:

Organic: Of the more than 1,000 moms surveyed, 44 percent believed organic foods had a different and preferable taste, and 41 percent indicated they believe organic produce is inherently healthier than conventionally-produced foods. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed inaccurately defined what it means to be organic, saying they totally or somewhat believed organic produce is produced without the use of pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides.

Biotech Crops: The is sue of biotech crops—or GMOs—unsurprisingly generated a lot of worry and uncertainty in the surveyed mothers. A quarter of the surveyed moms had not heard of GMOs, but 39 percent of those surveyed believed GMO foods have not been thoroughly tested for human safety. Forty-three percent believed food from GMOs are nutritionally different than non-GMO food.

Over half (53.2 percent) selected “neutral” for their position on the safety of GMO food, with no “don’t know” option. Despite this, more respondents (40.8 percent) said government agencies are doing their job to protect citizens on food safety issues than thought otherwise (25 percent).

Hormones in meat: The survey asked only one question regarding hormones in meat, and this dealt with survey-takers’ opinion on the importance of feeding hormone-free poultry and pork to their family. Fiftyfive percent of respondents said that was either somewhat or very important to them. USDA, of course, prohibits the use of hormones in poultry or hog production, making the label of “no added hormones” on pork or poultry products nothing but a marketing ploy.

All natural: A reported 53 percent of moms surveyed said they see “all natural” labels as indicative of a more nutritious product. Though no more was said about this in the results released regarding the survey, the divergence of actual and perceived meanings between labels was a common thread. The USDA definition of the “all natural” label requires products be minimally processed and contain no additional ingredients.

Local: Fifty-three percent of the women surveyed believed that locally-produced foods were inherently better for the environment.

The survey also covered some details of moms’ perceptions of farmers and farming practices. The results are as follows:

70 percent believed “the family farm is dying” in the U.S.

19.5 percent of respondents knew the portion of the population engaged in farming is less than 2 percent, and an additional 30 percent of respondents reported thinking farmers make up 3-5 percent of the U.S. population.

52 percent of respondents rejected the idea that farmers don’t care about their animals and are only in it for the money. A third was undecided, neutral, or wasn’t sure on the topic, and only 13.4 percent believed the idea.

Only 7.2 percent of respondents thought increases in food costs went directly into farmers’ or ranchers’ pockets, indicating a greater understanding of food economics among consumers than is often indicated in mainstream media.

While there were some definite areas of misunderstanding and running on misinformation among the moms surveyed, some of the results regarding perception of farmers were hopeful.

Yet at the same time, there’s more to do to on that front.

Ruskamp, who talks with consumers in grocery stores as part of her volunteering for CommonGround, said she was surprised by the mental image of family farms. She described the ideas of many people who spoke with her as resembling the farms of the 1930s.

Wistful ideas of “the family farm”—something very few Americans have any direct contact with anymore—which resemble Grant Wood paintings or the Old McDonald nursery rhyme, are sadly not uncommon with consumers.

The prevalence of that romantic imagery may have something to do with the prevalence of respondents who believed the family farm is dying in the U.S.

“We have to do a better message of telling who we are as family farms,” Ruskamp said decisively.

She described a number of her encounters with nonfarmers—both in the store and invited to see her feedlot—where her explanations of the use of hormones in the cattle were met with surprise followed by understanding.

One final area of interest in the survey was the disconnect between what sources moms thought were reliable for food information and the sources they actually turned to for that information. While 67 percent of respondents said farmers should be a key resource for consumers seeking information on food and farming, only 20 percent did so. When it comes to where they get their food and farming information, 68 percent said they turn to traditional media and the internet.

When asked about this, Ruskamp said it was an area needing greater attention.

“There’s just a lot of misinformation. And I feel bad for [consumers] because what they’re reading is not always true. We [farmers and ranchers] need to continue our own social media efforts and telling people what we do.”

Reaching out via social media has been one way many producers are trying to combat this problem, and is a lot of what Common- Grounds does. But it’s not an easy or quick-fix solution.

Ruskamp, a blogger herself—find her at DustInMy— spoke of the difficulty faced by producers trying to reach out to consumers through social media. She pointed out how difficult it can be to reach people and not get buried in the avalanche of social media at the same time. Even when she has reached out directly by speaking to people at grocery stores, she described some difficulty in the form of consumer suspicion.

“It was kind of a surprise to them that farmers would be out there trying to explain about farming rather than selling a product.”

But there was a good deal to be excited about with the survey results as well. Not only did a majority of respondents reject the propaganda circulated by animal rights groups and misguided mainstream media that farmers mistreat their animals, but there was ample opportunity to improve consumer understanding.

“In this survey, there was a lot of potential,” said Ruskamp. “There were a lot of neutral answers, so there’s potential.”

The area of greatest confusion for consumers, according to Ruskamp, was understanding labels. Given the multitudes of labels, some of which mean absolutely nothing legally, a little consumer education could go a long way.

Another area Ruskamp personally saw as being rich for improvement was educating those people consumers turn to for information, such as dieticians.

“We speak to a lot of dieticians because people are asking them questions about what we do and they don’t know.” She described how reaching out to dieticians directly via things like farm tours of crop farms, feedlots, and other agricultural institutions was a great tool because such efforts had “really good responses from the public.”

About CommonGround

CommonGround is a grassroots organization of volunteer farm women who seek to improve the conversation between “women who grow food, and the women who buy it.” The primary strategy of the group is to engage women on a personal level by sharing their personal experiences and talking with them in both inperson and online ways.

The CommonGround website includes a number of easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate pages addressing common misconceptions about farming and concerns mothers might have about food.

Many topics include eyecatching infographics with sourced references and video interviews with various farm women. Blog posts, personal recipes from the volunteers’ own tables, and even maps to find volunteers are all features of the organization’s outreach efforts.

For more information about CommonGround, visit the website at Find — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor